In 1967 London, Odelle Bastien, a Trinidadian émigré with literary aspirations, begins dating a man who inherited an unusual portrait of two girls from his late mother. Its discovery excites and shocks Odelle’s employers at the Skelton Institute of Art, since few works by the elusive left-wing painter Isaac Robles, who vanished during the Spanish Civil War, are known to exist.
In 1936 Andalusia, Isaac and his half sister, Teresa, become involved with the wealthy Schloss family, who are renting a nearby villa. Knowing that her own artistic efforts would be slighted by her art-dealer father, daughter Olive keeps them secret, a choice that has profound aftereffects.
Both historical settings are deftly evoked, and the alternating story lines enhance the charged atmosphere. Burton creatively infuses historical fiction with mystery in her exploration of the far-reaching consequences of deception, the relationship between art and artist, and the complex trajectory of women’s desires.
The Muse will be published later this month by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins ($27.99 hb/$14.99 ebook, 432pp). In the UK, where the book was published on June 30th, the publisher is Picador (£12.99). This review first appeared in Booklist's June issue.
I reviewed The Miniaturist two years ago and remarked on its original concept, underutilized setting (17th-century Amsterdam), and use of language. It was a mega-bestseller that won a variety of prizes (see toward the bottom of the author's website). The Miniaturist was very good, but The Muse is even better. I admired how she shook up the traditional "art mystery" plotline, and after I finished it, I had a new appreciation for the title.